Chris L. Minnick, M.D.

Some Implications of Memories Stored as Feelings

Overview:

We now have a semblance of an unconscious inner world, populated by a handful of paired relationships that are each bonded by intense positive or negative emotions. The meaning of the relationship gradually elaborates at a cortical level, particularly in the frontal lobe region, progressively during childhood and continues into adult life. At the heart of what Kleinians refer to as an “unconscious phantasy” is the meaning ascribed to any of these paired relationships, at any age in the lifespan, i.e. “who is doing what to whom and why.”

This picture becomes somewhat more complicated as we take the development of brain structures into consideration, starting “in utero” and early infancy and ending with the full maturation of the frontal lobes in one’s mid-twenties.

I suspect mankind has pondered down through the millennia the evolution of “emotions” and “thoughts” in all organisms beneath us on the evolutionary, developmental chain. Do fish have feelings? How about cold-blooded snakes or reptiles? Surely, mammals must have some rudimentary feelings.

But if mammals have paper thin cerebral cortices, compared to our over-developed ones with big, ostentatious frontal lobes, then where are their feelings stored, and how much can they do with them beyond just reacting to feelings in an almost reflexive manner?

Here is the rub for humans. We get to feel so superior to those below us on the purported food chain because we can do so much more than they can, but we still also do what they do. That is to say, we also store feelings at a midbrain level, and have instinctive, non-thinking responses to stimuli like they do, especially in life-threatening situations!

Humans Memories Stored as Feelings, Early in Life and Later in Life:

The “memories as feelings” of the four year old girl I mentioned earlier who had been born a number of months prematurely and had to breathe while hooked up to a respirator via a tracheostomy were stored in the amygdala (which is part of the limbic system) long before her cerebral cortex or frontal lobes could make any sense of her experiences.  This brings up the contrasting question of a powerful, traumatic experience occurring later in life. How does this relate to the primitive memory storage systems and the more advanced systems that only come online after the age of two?

For example, what happens to an 18 year old soldier in Iraq or Afghanistan whose Humvee is blown up by an IED and has witnessed the horror of seeing his best friend “blown to pieces”? Where in his psyche will that horrific experience be registered? Will that 18 year old be capable of a “flashback” of that experience at 80 years of age, the same way the four year old above will probably be able to re-experience the traumas of her infancy?

Storage of Trauma Later in Life as “Feeling” and as “Memory”

I’ll cut to the chase. I believe that what post-traumatic stress disorder, flashbacks of traumatic events, childhood anxieties, situational depression in adults, borderline personality meltdowns, etc. all have in common is a component of emotional experience stored in primitive, midbrain structures, most importantly in the “amygdala.”

Ultimately for the infant, or simultaneously for traumatic events later in life, I think they are also stored as cortical structures, but often insufficiently understood at the cortical level and prone to rather significant revision and distortion at that level, a fact to which any forensic expert on the distortion of “eye witness” accounts can attest.

Arguably, it is the more primitive “amygdala” level storage of traumatic emotional experience that has significance for the mental health professional, which I explore in the next section on “Limbic Leakage.”

When something triggers a neuronal connection to the midbrain level, what comes out are memories of feelings, which can be extremely emotionally painful and not infrequently feel like they are coming out of “thin air.” Sometimes, the fact that the reaction and attendant feelings are also registering at a cortical level may aid the individual in thinking things through, but often as not that ‘thinking’ is inadequate to stem the flood of more primitive feelings. This is one of the reasons why ‘reassurance’ is usually of little help in traumatic situations.

To make a concrete example, let us say that the young man in the military trauma had been the first born child in his family, and at 18 months of age, a sibling was stillborn. Reassuring him, in the context of the explosion, that there was nothing he could have done to save his friend may be of little or no value. This would be especially true if the event had triggered a midbrain reaction of being to blame for his sibling’s stillbirth, an event that he would probably be unable to connect to the military event.

In my own daily life, I often have a negative mood take over that I cannot link consciously to anything I have recently experienced. I usually have to do some searching of the mood, referencing it to the archives of what I know of my own history, and can often get at least a vague hunch of what is being stirred up. This is still hard work for me, making sense of the remnants of my own difficult early childhood, even after two analyses spanning some sixteen years of my life.

Summary:

Events throughout one’s lifespan, if they are emotionally intense, will register and be stored at both primitive, midbrain levels and more potentially “thinkable” cortical levels. In early infancy, things are often very intense, but the primitive storage as ‘memories in feelings’ will be more significant as the cortex is not yet very organized. Those midbrain feelings will be reworked at the cortical level for a long time, usually attached to an object relationship, hopefully and ultimately becoming an unconscious phantasy available to be reworked as needed.

But does the cortex metabolize all of the midbrain memories in feeling, so that it is like a computer hard drive that has been wiped clean? This leads us to our next topic: Limbic leakage.